Updated: Jul 21
When I was 18, I thought I had grown up. When I had my first child at 19, I thought I had grown up. I never imagined reaching 54 and STILL realising part of me still hadn't grown up! I was playing the game of life and part of me was still a child.
I entered the world of counselling and psychotherapy in my late 40's and was introduced to many useful concepts, one being the Parent/Adult/Child (PAC) model from Transactional Analysis (TA). The ideas around this have helped me to understand how some communications between people can end up being highly charged and in some cases abusive.
This model proposes we have three ego states which we move in and out of depending upon the situation and person we are communicating to.
Note: *the parent ego state can either be nurturing and supportive or critical and shaming. It is a reenactment of their parenting.
*the child ego state can be either free spirited and curious (child like) or adapted and manipulative (child ish). If the behaviour worked as a child, it might work as an adult!
The ultimate aim is to have adult to adult transactions which creates and maintains an equal power balance ... This dialogue or conversation is a balance of listening and responding in the present moment, without triggers.
However, often adults go into a child state or a parent state which changes the power balance and causes conflict. I've used this a lot in the therapy room to help clients understand conflicts in their relationships at home or in work.
What adult really wants to become childish in a conversation? ... Who really wants their partner to turn into their critical parent?
Well this is what can happen instantaneously and repetitively. Many people don't consciously recognise it and spend ALL their life osculating from one unhealthy ego state to the next.
When I was in a relationship with Vincent, I was so out of balance and I was needy … needy of love from another so my worth was acknowledged and I was crying out to feel wanted so my sense of abandoned was quietened. I recognise these now as parts of me that were still trapped as a child seeking parental acknowledgement. I really didn't recognise this part of me as Vincent's was the only one to trigger this behavour. I was normally rather good at getting back to an adult to adult ego dialogue however with Vincent I seemed to have no control of my ego states.
It was rather useful that around this time of being in a relationship with Vincent I was completing my counselling degree and one module was on couples. You bet ... I was eager to do this module, firstly as I thought I might enjoy working with couples and secondly to try to work out why I was out of control juggling these ego states; it was an eye opener. I learnt about Imago Relationship therapy (which is informed by the PAC model and TA) that suggests the main purpose of a relationship is to finish off childhood. Needs not met as a child are met in the adult relationship often through challenging conversations or actions and for some it can be very painful. That hit home.
Apparently, we unconsciously choose partners who are like our parents – great at first as we see the good aspects then after time … BOOM … the aspects of our parenting that felt unresolved appear. In fact, we manifest them in the unconscious process of becoming whole. It is not initially a conscious process unless you have been introduced to some counselling theory, however it is part of our evolution or growing up process. Part of me screams out, ‘I wish I'd known this years ago.’ Although, it’s one thing knowing something and another experiencing it whilst trying to work out how to resolve the continual triggers.
Shame … shame … more shame
Finishing off childhood also meant coming face to face with my shame history. I recognised that another thing I have unconsciously attracted in a partner is sexual shame due my sexual shame history. Many theories, like Imago Relationship Theory, support the idea of attracting partners, or people, into your life to reveal areas you are not feeling free or complete. No one would evolve into fully functioning adults without the challenges these people and events bring.
Not sure I was prepared for a relationship as dramatic as this with a sex addict, and one who actually didn't always want sex! Bizarre but true. Who wants to be reminded of the behaviours that have kept you trapped for years and are laced with guilt and shame. Lucky me! This is common for people coming out of any addiction - what reformed alcoholic or cocaine addict wants a drink or a line of coke? The drink or the line of coke puts you quite possibly back into the addiction so many choose to abstain. It's a bit trickier with sex as it is a natural function of living, being intimate and having a partner. But sex doesn't mean intimacy to a sex addict, it means shame and shame kills intimacy.
I realised that I was indeed an expert in shame. I had a rich family history of sexual shame before I was even conceived as I am an Irish Catholic. I was born with the sexual shame of 'out of wed-lock sex' and pregnancy. Hence, being adopted.
I felt the shame and rejection from the womb of my birth mother as well as the conflict of her loving me yet knowing she was not allowed to love me. Yes, you do take on the emotions from your mother even before you are born. At that point, you don’t know the difference between yourself and your mother – you are one.
On top of that, I had the sexual shame inherited from being raised within a Catholic belief system where sex is linked to sin and not seen as a healthy way to sexually express yourself. To add another shame token to the mix, my adopted parents had the sexual shame linked to not being able to conceive. They never talked about sex and I never heard them have sex.
I can understand why now. Mum was in her 70s when she told me about trying to conceive and failing time and time again. This took all the joy out of having sex and was linked to others viewing them as sexually dysfunctional which was shameful and totally embarrassing. I am sure if you have had issues with infertility you know a similar scenario.
I seem to have a plethora of sexual shame stories peppered throughout my life too, enough to fill a book. My history, and up bringing, left me with a whole load of unconscious shame that had not become apparent until I met Vincent; I was so naive living in my protective only child, catholic daughter, catholic teacher bubble.
... 'rose tinted glasses' ...
This on/off, yo yo relationship went on for years with periods of weeks and months apart. Each time the relationship improving and each time me thinking his addiction was tamed. What an idiot! I can imagine some of you thinking. Well when you do fall for someone, and still have those lop sided 'rose tinted glasses' on, it is hard to look at your own situations objectively. Plus he was a gentle, loving guy with a hell of a sense of humour that I adored and we connected on more levels than anyone else I had ever met. I chose to focus on all the good aspects of the relationship as I was infatuated with the joy he brought me; I ignored all the crap parts.
After I had finished my degree and in the isolation of the pandemic, I took on a couple of comprehensive coaching course that helped me to recognise how I was creating it ALL by repeatedly allowing Vincent back in my life. A key aspect was learning about underlying unconscious beliefs and how they play out in your life. I eventually recognised that I was living out my abandonment patterns and shame history. That was a big grow up moment.
' ... putting his needs before my own.'
What was overshadowing my objectivity was me thinking I could fix him and being overly understanding of his addiction. I read everything I could to understand what was going on for Vincent to support him. In a way, I was trying to rescue him and putting his needs before mine. Vincent had to rescue himself to regain his will which had been taken with the addiction and I had to focus on ME.
When I started to focus on ME, I recognised I was so afraid of the shame of rejection I was willing to accept him back time and time again. I was creating neediness. Another grow up moment.
I can reflect now on this experience and I would not have wished it any different. It uncovered both our comfortable resting points; Vincent could be more narcissistic and I was a drained altruist. We were both totally out of balance however the relationship conflicts helped us both to value the dance of giving and taking. For me to live life to the full and to serve others to my highest potential whilst maintaining ultimate self care, I have embraced both narcissism and altruism. This challenging relationship helped me to gain great wisdom about myself and relationships which I can, and do, offer to others to support them in growing up and creating balance in their lives. Absolute GOLD.
My personal and therapy room experiences indicates that many women are great at putting others needs before themselves. I have also met men who offer that level of self giving. Whether male or female, the result is always burn out as they had reached the point of being empty. PLUS, not ONE client has claimed to have heard about relationships being a way to finish off childhood. Only ONE client, who was a clinical psychologist, knew about the PAC model.
I guess that one of the aims of my business is for it to be like a sort of Adult School that offers people tools for growing up. A key aspect being the offering of psycho-education which is the foundation of my approach. This offers clients the opportunity to make consciously informed choices ... and ...
CHOICE is your most powerful tool for drama free, damn good living.
Vincent is a pseudonym. This blog has Vincent's consent.
If you are at a relationship crisis point, dealing with a relationship betrayal (porn related and/or physical infidelity) or trying to get over any other personal or profession challenge, I offer a single session therapy service.
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Image from: Handle (S) The PAC Model: The Parent, Adult, and Child That Exists in All of Us TheEmotionMachine.com Accessed 31/01/2022
If you are interested in finding out more about the PAC model, Transactional Analysis (TA) or Imago Relationship Therapy, there are plenty of videos and information on the internet.